People leaping to defend James Gunn are demonstrating an unsophisticated understanding of the world.
If you’re reading this, you probably know what it’s about: James Gunn, Marvel movie helmer and nerdboy darling, was fired from the next Guardians of the Galaxy movie after some old, very ugly tweets resurfaced. A back has lashed, from fans of all political persuasions, and public statements and petitions for reinstatement have flowed thick and fast. Maybe Gunn’s firing was the wrong move, but people criticizing it are missing the true significance of our current moment.
There’s a lot going on in this story, contextually. The guy who brought these tweets to the public’s attention is, by all public accounts, a pretty bad human being, and the firing seems to have been motivated by a mercenary interest in keeping up with the times. That is, firing Gunn looks like it’s in the spirit of #MeToo and #TimesUp, but it’s actually hypocritical and insincere. And it’s getting rid of a guy who, however crappy his sense of humor might have been in the past, seems to be capable of apologizing well and learning from his mistakes.
Gunn’s old, crappy sense of humor previously came under scrutiny in 2012, when he was about to launch the first Guardians film. The Mary Sue reported on a childish, insulting blog post that he wrote in 2011, and he apologized, sincerely and believably. He’s been through all this before and has elected not to expunge his past mistakes from Twitter, presumably so that they may serve as a lesson to others. A respectable stance. But I’m still suspicious.
A glance at his Wikipedia page indicates that Gunn is an accomplished hustler, in the freelance sense (not in the prostitution sense; I’m not looking for a libel suit). He seems to have done anything and everything to get light on him. Lead singer for a band, writing for Troma, writing remakes and bottom-line guarantors like Dawn of the Dead and Scooby-Doo, novel-writing, producing, acting, and heaven knows what else that isn’t even recorded. I’m not disrespecting these choices; this kind of hustle is how a nerd from St. Louis winds up directing one of the biggest franchises of the decade. It’s unmistakable as hustle, though, many years of it, and to me that registers a certain savviness—a better-than-usual understanding of how to work one’s angles.
Also, Gunn was born in 1966. That means he tweeted hilariously about pedophilia when he was 42 or 43, and wrote those unfortunate blog posts when he was 45. Over forty is too old to misunderstand the impact of such jokes, particularly for someone educated at Columbia. Words mean things, and anyone with a creative writing MFA knows it.
But these details are not even the main point. Maybe James Gunn is a good dude who’s made questionable choices on his way up, and firing him transparently throws a bucket of Xanax at the liberal mobs who want all men drawn and quartered. Or maybe not; maybe he’s secretly a terrible person and he’s really good at apologizing. Maybe his bad tweets and blog posts, not his apologies, are the true proof of his character. In this case, I don’t care whether James Gunn is a decent guy or not. I care about people misunderstanding the lesson here.
Which is: if James Gunn was fired unfairly, so what?
People are fired unfairly all the time. But usually, the people fired unfairly are not cisgendered, heterosexual white men. Black men get fired, white women get fired, Latina women get fired, Pakistani men get fired, trans people get fired, disabled people get fired, gay people get fired. All the time. And it’s grossly unjust. But it happens, and it happens in these same kinds of circumstances, where political motivations and personal prejudice are present in uncertain quantities, but mostly the situation is just unfair.
What I’m saying is that even if his firing is unfair, that’s normal. It’s exactly how everyone else gets treated.
I myself was fired once, from a pizza franchise. I was the store manager, and a male driver was sexually harassing me. I wanted to fire him for this, and I had to take up this decision with the owner. The owner fired me and installed the driver as store manager instead.
If you are a white man, you’re probably saying, “There must be more to it than that.” Nope. That is the full story. During my tenure as manager, I improved the store’s statistics in inspection, food waste, and delivery times. And I got fired, presumably because the owner preferred to have a man in charge.
It was unfair. But that is life. Life is unfair. Sometimes you get fired, even when you don’t deserve it.
Gunn’s firing is an opportunity for average white men to realize this, and to realize that it can happen to them, too, just as it’s been happening to non-white/non-men for as long as there has been prejudice. I’m not saying that Gunn has no value to Disney, or that replacing him is going to be easy, or that firing him is just desserts for the dominance white men have held over Hollywood since the 1920s. That’s all distraction, as is the point that Gunn’s apologies demonstrate that people can change (though I’m not so sure about that). What I’m saying is that even if his firing is unfair, that’s normal. It’s exactly how everyone else gets treated. The difficulty level for white men’s lives has risen since #MeToo, and now they’re going to get fired sometimes even if they don’t deserve it.
Interpersonally, we’re in a frightening moment. Rocks are turning over and bad things are appearing underneath them, slimy wriggling things that most people might have preferred to keep hidden. Both press and personal responses to #MeToo, and Black Lives Matter, and all the other social movements that make oppressed lives more visible, tell me that cis hetero white men are totally overwhelmed by all the terrible things they didn’t know went on in the lives of women and people of color. I have sympathy for that overwhelm. Truly. It’s hard when your world gets overturned, and you have to cope with knowledge you never had and never wanted—a world already going on all around you that you couldn’t (or wouldn’t) perceive.
James Gunn’s firing, or, more accurately, the backlash to James Gunn’s firing, is a consequence of a difficult transition: the beginning of an era when preferential treatment and a presumption of innocence is not given to white men by default. Disney doesn’t presume Gunn’s innocence, and doesn’t give him a second chance, just because he fell on his knees and apologized for bad behavior committed when he was a naïve boy of 43. Maybe that’s unfair. My response to people screaming about the injustice of it? Tough. Get used to it. Life ain’t fair.